How a mild-mannered Montrealer ran away to a wild place, found his inner beatnik, came back home to real life and returned 40 years on to rediscover the scene of his youthful adventure. Victor Dabby pictured with Baba (in black), 1971.
Rover previews a new blog, Letters from Elsewhere.
This is the first in an occasional series of travel reflections wherein writers reflect on culture and foreign places. Open to anyone with a story to tell. Write email@example.com for information on how you can contribute.
TANGIER – It’s almost noon as the sun bathes the Medina in a warm yellow light. I sit outside, sipping my mint tea at Café Central in the Petit Socco, which my guidebook describes as “the most notorious crossroads of Tangier.”
This is “the site of drug deals and all forms of prostitution. Today, the facades are freshly painted and tourists abound, but given its sordid past, it is still a somewhat eerie place to sit and drink your mint tea.” Eerie, indeed. I know the Petit Socco intimately, having lived in Tangier for months during my misspent youth in the early 1970s.
Just now, making my way to the Medina, a drug dealer reminded me of the old days by whispering: “Voulez-vous du hash? Du kif?” I walked away. “Mais que cherchez-vous?” he cried out.
What am I looking for? I wanted to tell him : “Je cherche les fantômes de ma jeunesse. Les personnages qui m’ont fait venir ici et me font revenir quarante ans plus tard.”
So I sip my tea and listen to the sounds of the Petit Socco – the wail of an Arab singer, the shuffling of feet, the cries of babies and beggars, conversations in many languages. This can only be Tangier, gateway to Africa, where the whole world meets.
I am transported back to 1971, when I first arrived in Morocco from Montreal, fresh out of McGill (BA, PoliSci), disillusioned by western life. I came here, the new Mecca of the counter-culture, to get away from it all.
Tangier, once a free port populated by exiled foreigners, spoke to me. This was a city with a history of spies and smugglers, sex fiends and seekers, writers and wanderers. I wanted to sprinkle myself with its magic dust.
Right here at Café Central, Tennessee Williams wrote Camino Real. At these very tables sat Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. William Burroughs penned The Naked Lunch at a nearby hotel while Truman Capote hung out at the Café du Paris.
True, they stopped coming after 1956 when the city was handed back to Morocco. But the Tangier legend infected a whole new generation in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Like me, they came here in droves, their heads full of stories about the louche life. Being a fanatical Rolling Stones fan, the mere fact that Keith Richard was seen here, was enough for me. He was a regular at Café Baba at the entrance to the Kasbah, which is where I first headed.
Soon, the café became my second home, Baba, my surrogate father. (My own parents only heard from me in a monthly aerogramme with Poste Restante, Tanger, as the return address.)
I can still see Baba sitting on the floor of his café in a jelaba, holding his pipe of kif (marijuana and black tobacco), blissfully stoned, looking up to greet us with a dreamy: “Bonjour, mon fils.”
On sunny days, me and my best new friends – Jay from Winnipeg, George from London and Peter from New Zealand – would amble over to Café Hafa overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, sit there for hours watching freighters plying the waters between Morocco and Spain while we debated Camus and Sartre, Jean-Luc Goddard and Timothy Leary.
Our local hero was Paul Bowles, the British author who lived in Tangier. We had all read The Sheltering Sky and related to its tale of an American couple whose relationship falls apart in Morocco. (Bernardo Bertolucci turned into a film with John Malkovitch and Debra Winger; its success assured Bowles’ legendary status).
We had seen Bowles ambling about the Kasbah with his wife Jane. Their marriage was the talk of the town. Everyone knew she was a lesbian, Paul a homosexual. In our eyes, they were a perfect couple for this “deliciously decadent” city.
In his writing, Bowles captured the essence of Tangier, its “covered alleys, hidden terraces, tunnels, ramparts, ruins, dungeons and cliffs.” Only later, did I read about his dark side, his nihilism, his voracious appetite for drugs and sex with boys.
Today, Tangier still dines out on the Bowles legend. Just about every landmark – from the Continental Hotel where Bertolucci filmed, to Café Hafa – has memorabilia of him. The Tangier American Legation Museum devotes an entire room to Bowles and the Beat writers. Somehow, the weird drugs and sex are glossed over.
As I sit at Café Central, I think back to how quickly I became disillusioned with my ephemeral life here. It seemed empty and I needed to make peace with the world I had left behind.
Even back then, I could see Tangier changing: Wealthy Europeans bought up the Kasbah while conservative Islam tightened its hold. Flamboyance and permissiveness were a thing of the past as hard drugs and overdoses became common. The dream had ended, sending me and my friends to scatter to the winds.
On that melancholy note, I finish my mint tea and leave Café Central. As I make my way through the Medina, I bid my ghosts a sentimental farewell. The party in Tangier is long over. It’s time for me to go.
Victor Dabby was born in Tehran, Iran. He is living in Toulouse, France, and plans to return to Montreal this summer. A former CBC TV producer and National Editor at The Gazette, he currently works in documentary film.